What are the key ingredients of effective preaching? I have reflected on this question for many years and have come up with seven. Here is an outline of essential elements for good text-driven preaching from my perspective.
What is the meaning of the text? Determining textual meaning in its context is the essential first step in the exegetical process. We cannot preach the text accurately unless we know what it means. Every text has a certain “substance” to it—what it is about. Every text has a certain “structure” to it—syntactical, but even more importantly, a semantic structure. The “form” conveys “meaning,” and meaning is what we are trying to discover and reproduce in our preaching. Every text has a certain “spirit” about it. It is conveyed in a certain genre, such as narrative, law, poetry, letter, parable, etc. The genre contributes to the overall meaning of the text.
My approach to textual meaning in preparation to preach can be found in my chapter “Preparing a Text-Driven Sermon” in Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 101–34.
The job of the preacher is to translate and transfer the meaning of the text to the audience in terms and contexts they understand. Textual meaning has to be reproduced via the sermon. This entails knowledge of the text as well as knowledge of the culture and congregation. Theological concepts like “propitiation” have to be dejargonized and explained in terms that any audience can comprehend. Unless this is done, the likelihood of misapprehension and misinterpretation increases. Even common terms such as “faith” have to be explained and illustrated. Abstract concepts are otherwise difficult to apprehend.
In order to accomplish #2 above, every sermon should be structured for maximum effect. Though we can talk about the traditional three part over-arching structure to describe sermons—introduction, body, conclusion—my focus here is different. Sermons should be structured in such a way that they reflect the substance, structure and spirit of the text itself.
I think all sermons should contain the following key elements:
Exposition – Explaining the meaning of the text.
Illustration – Elucidating the meaning of the text.
Application – Applying the warranted meaning of the text.
Imagination – Helping people penetrate reality through creativity in preaching.
Argumentation – Proving the point of the text via its logic.
Motivation – Moving the will to obey via rhetoric, passion, exhortation, etc.
Exhortation – Telling them what to believe and practice; to do and not to do.
Connecting with people via content and style is what I have in mind here. What you say is important (content); how you say it is also important (style/delivery). All preachers should be excellent communicators.
There is no difference between the infield dimensions of a high school baseball field and the major leagues. The distance between the bases is 90 feet and the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate is still 60 feet and 6 inches. What is the difference between a pitcher pitching in high school and a pitcher in the major leagues? Fifteen miles per hour. That’s it. Fifteen miles per hour makes the difference between pitching in front of 25 people making nothing and pitching in front of thousands making millions of dollars. If you can throw a ball 80 mph in high school, you are a good pitcher. But if that is the limit of your speed in the major leagues, everybody and their grandmother will knock you out of the park. Fifteen miles per hour in delivery makes all the difference in the world.
The same is true in preaching. Most preachers I know need to learn how to add that extra fifteen mph to their delivery. The great lefty Warren Spahn’s pitching career in the National League spanned 21 years. In 13 seasons, he won 20+ games. His pitching coach said Spann never threw a pitch without an idea behind it. Preachers need to work on their delivery.
What is the missing key in some preaching today? Passion. A passion for Christ, the Word, and people must be expressed in every sermon. People know when we have passion and when we don’t. Remember, one of Aristotle’s triad of rhetoric is pathos.
Preaching should be an attempt to convince people to think and act biblically. Behavior is based on belief. Change how people think and you will change how they behave. There is a huge difference between manipulation and persuasion. Manipulation should never be a tool in the preacher’s toolbox. Persuasion should always be in the toolbox. Paul said, “Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.”
The goal of all preaching should be life transformation. Information is not transformation. Ultimately, only the Holy Spirit can transform lives, but He does so by means of the preaching of the Word of God. The salvation of the lost and the edification of the saved is what we are about in our preaching.
Incorporate these things in your preaching and trust the Holy Spirit to bless!